A Brief History of Philanthropy—Generations of Benevolence

A Brief History of PhilanthropyJohn Gardner once said “Wealth is not new. Neither is charity. But the idea of using private wealth imaginatively, constructively, and systematically to attack the fundamental problems of mankind is new.” The notion that fiscal donations are new is fascinating and worth exploring. It speaks volumes about the progression of society and the development of human beings. Gardner’s quote begs the question: why?

The earliest examples of philanthropy have their roots in religion. Many religions are built on charity, encouraging their followers to go out and do good in the world. While poverty was widespread, the promise of paradise after death was enough to spur many in society to make a difference through giving, though generally not in the form of monetary support.

Before the 15th and 16th centuries, humanity was relegated to a feudal system where peasants were more or less inextricably bound to landowners. In this serf-centrist system, the less fortunate were bound by their poverty, powerless to escape unless their feudal lord or landowner deemed it acceptable. This happened rarely, given that said lord was relying on serfs for labor. Following several wars and diseases that changed the very course of history, rural feudalism collapsed into the very dirt it was built upon.

Towns and cities rose from the ashes to create a new social order. The Reformation brought to light new religious philosophies. The Ottoman Empire reached its golden apex. Eastern Asian dynasties created groundbreaking technologies and contributed astounding gifts to humanity. The Age of Discovery inspired creativity and the exchange of ideas. It was the culmination of these things that eventually bred the notion of philanthropy as we know it.

With the increasing social concentration in cities and towns came the very real and noticeable presence of poverty, and with this presence came those willing to do something about it. simultaneous prosperity and despicable working conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, Andrew Carnegie authored the 1889 Gospel of Wealth, which requested of millionaires of the era to distribute their wealth for the greater good. This was the first true piece in the foundation of modern philanthropy. The Gospel of Wealth had enormous implications across nearly all sectors of society including education, culture, science, and public health, both domestically and abroad.

From here, the modern notion of charity continued to develop in conjunction with the rest of the world. The Great Depression, social welfare, The Great War, World War II, racial inequality, and civil rights were but a few of the global concepts and events that continued to mold philanthropy into what it is today. World War II provoked an incredible outpouring of both fiscal and emotional support. Various communities developed in order to provide social support, and the effects of such groups can still be seen today in the form of countless nonprofits and NGOs.

Today, philanthropy continues to develop. Whereas in the post-Industrial Revolution era Andrew Carnegie called for millionaires and people of extreme fiscal resources to give, ordinary people are now able to contribute. The impact of many micro-donations can have a bigger impact than any single large donation. As society develops and refines its practices, so does charity. As we look to the future, let us give our children the life they deserve to live. The first step is continuing to refine philanthropy and to define what it means in the modern world and what it will mean for future generations.